A Tale of Two Woods

This treehugger in an Essex forest doesn't need reminding why our woodlands are special

Writer Anne Boileau kindly offered CPRE Essex this delightful story celebrating our glorious woodlands earlier in the year, before any of us had any idea of what was about to befall the country. Now, however, as we long to return to our favourite countryside places, is an ideal time to settle down and enjoy Anne’s piece…       

A Tale of Two Woods

We grew up with stories about huge forests, and people living and working in woods – woodsmen’s children abandoned, little girls meeting wolves, old women in barley-sugar cottages. I would like to tell you the real-life stories of two woods in Essex, and their survival.
Once upon a time the land that is now called Essex was one great forest, a wildwood of small-leaved lime, oak, hornbeam, hazel, birch, alder and many other trees besides.
There were hills and valleys, streams, bogs and ponds; clearings opened up when huge old trees fell down. Sometimes forest fires broke out, sparked by lightning strikes. But the forest grew back, enriched from the ashes. This landscape teemed with all manner of life: mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, with a diversity and abundance we can scarcely imagine. Mists and will o’ the wisp hung about at night under the dark skies. The stars were bright and the moon blazed when it was full. It was untamed wilderness.
Our forebears were nomadic hunter-gatherers, travelled in small groups and lived well, though they were not very numerous. However, around 4000 BC, Neolithic farmers arrived by boat from what is now Germany, in particular Saxony; we know this from the elm-tree clones they brought with them.
They needed open ground for pasture and crops, so they set about felling trees to make clearings. Gradually, the wildwood became fragmented into parcels, what we now call woods; early man gave them names and encircled them with ditches and banks to keep out browsing deer; these woods provided an ever-renewing supply of timber, fuel, fruit, nuts and game.
Ecologist and writer Oliver Rackham reckons that by 500 BC at the latest, less than half the wildwood in Britain remained. So by 43AD, when Claudius and the Romans arrived in Colchester, the landscape in Essex was already predominantly farmland, with wildwood surviving in isolated woods and hedges that were managed as field and community boundaries.
Woods that have survived like this, having never been clear-felled or replanted, are known as ancient woods. Their trees are native (which means they have grown here since the last ice age, 10,000 years ago) and the ground flora is extremely diverse, having remained undisturbed for many centuries.

Perfect pollards
My first woodland story is about Hainault Forest; this is a 300-acre ancient wood, once part of the old Waltham Forest; it lies near Romford, within 12 miles of Piccadilly. The landscape is undulating, with streams, ponds and bogs; of meadows, wood pasture and trees; various species grow here, but most significant of all are the pollarded hornbeams, immortalised by the artist Arthur Rackham in so many fairy-tale books. Pollarding is the old custom of repeatedly lopping the branches of trees six or seven feet above ground – low enough for a man to reach with his lopper but too high for animals to browse. The trunks grow strong and thick, and the practice is thought to prolong the life of a tree.
We see pollard trees in Essex hedgerows; in Hatfield Forest, there are some fine specimens: pollard oaks and hornbeams with thick trunks and contorted branches. Some of the trunks are hollow. Their ancient timbers are shaken by low-flying aeroplanes from Stansted Airport.
Hainault, or what remains of it, represents one of the best examples of pollarded hornbeam woodland in Europe, and as such is very special. It was nearly lost forever. In 1851, when forestry and heaths were no longer economically viable, an army of steam juggernauts dragging heavy chains chundered through the forest, pushing down the trees, tearing up their roots, flattening out ponds and mounds, and clearing it for use as arable land and ultimately of course for houses.
Such was the speed and horror of the destruction that Edward North Buxton formed the first conservation movement in Britain – an unlikely alliance of lawyers, artists, commoners and local people. They succeeded in saving 6 per cent of Hainault, a mere 300 acres of what had been 5,000.
The outrage at this desecration then spared Epping Forest from a similar fate. Forest land was acquired by the City of London Corporation and designated as open space for the people of the capital – it is protected by the 1878 Act. Queen Victoria opened the forest with much fanfare and publicity on May 6, 1882.
In 1924 Mr Buxton acquired Hatfield Forest, a historic woodland pasture, and donated it to the nascent National Trust. His determination and the publicity of the case were instrumental in saving many other commons and open spaces from development, notably Hampstead Heath and London Fields, to name only two. London is blessed with a great many fine parks and open spaces.
Hainault Forest now belongs to Essex County Council and is leased to the Woodland Trust, which in turn contracts the maintenance to the Forestry Commission. The traditional management of pollarding the hornbeams and maintaining wood pasture in more open areas has been reintroduced. The whole area is open access for local people to enjoy.

A wood of two halves
My second story is about a very different ancient wood: Chalkney Wood, in the Colne Valley between Earls Colne and Great Tey. It comprises 184 acres and is on the cusp between two dominant native trees: on the eastern side, small-leaved lime dominates, while on the western side it is hornbeam; also present are sweet chestnut, hazel, oak, goat willow, ash and many other species.
It is also divided by two owners with very different management plans. In the late 1950s, the Forestry Commission bought the northern half and proceeded to fell all the native trees, poisoning the stools with ammonium sulphamate or AMS; it then superimposed rows of conifers as a crop. These alien evergreens grew fast, darkening the canopy, and their falling needles acidified the ground – the complex community of ground flora went to sleep, deciding to wait until conditions were more favourable. Not so the native trees: such was their vigour that, despite the poison, they grew back, tall and lanky, with organ-pipe trunks, in competition with the conifers, insuppressible but diminished.
In 1976, the county council bought the southern half of the wood. It was well aware, even then, of the wood’s historical and ecological significance; it was also looking for suitable areas for open access.
It resumed the traditional management of coppice on rotation, which had not been practised for at least 60 years. This is the traditional regime of felling a proportion of the wood, in this case about three acres per year, leaving a few large trees as standards and allowing the stumps or stools to send up fresh shoots (which they do, with remarkable speed). This is done on a 25-year rotation, which provides a variety of age and size of tree and varied habitats for wildlife.
For countless centuries this wood had been an integrated whole, a hive of economic activity. Now it was divided into two distinct and disparate halves. The ECC side thrived and was popular both with the public and with birds and other wildlife. The FC side grew dark and still, its conifer imposters in serried ranks.
Oliver Rackham, in his book The History of the Countryside, was stingingly critical of what the Forestry Commission had done to its side of the wood, which in his view was a living ancient monument. Apart from that, the pine trees were not growing well and would never be profitable.
In the early 1990s, showing commendable humility, the FC acknowledged its mistake and its forester at that time, Simon Leatherdale, oversaw a vigorous restoration programme: the conifers were felled and all brush removed. The overshadowed native trees grew back with energy as soon as they were exposed to the light; the ground flora sprang back into life; the acidification from pine needles has now been reversed, partly thanks to the alkaline flushes present in the wood; and now, in 2020, you can hardly see the difference between the two halves of this lovely wood.

Standing the tests of time
I have told you a story about two woods in Essex and what happened to them in modern times. Many of you will know similar stories about woods in your own area. For thousands of years, dating right back to pre-history, woods provided a living for local people: pollards provided poles for fencing and fodder for beasts; coppice stools produced faggots for bakers’ and maltsers’ ovens. Standard trees such as oaks provided timber for housing and ships, and smaller trees wood for furniture, wheels and carts, boats, clogs, pipes and posts; charcoal burners made fuel for early iron foundries and glassworks, and travelling potters set up their wheels by clay pits and built pop-up kilns fired by brushwood.
They used bark for tanning and bracken for animal bedding; they picked, dried and preserved berries and fruit, and in autumn gathered hazelnuts, chestnuts and mushrooms. Between Michaelmas and Martinmas, commoners’ pigs were allowed to roam in the woods to fatten on the beechmast and acorns, a practice known as pannage. And in our fairy stories and our imaginations, little girls got lost and met wolves on their way to their grandmothers’ cottages, and woodcutters’ children were abandoned to find their own way home.
Our ancient woods are now, belatedly, cherished and recognised for their cultural, historical and ecological significance. Though no longer economically important, they can still pay their own way, with the growing demand for firewood, hurdles and spars.
There is a drive to plant lots of new trees to offset carbon, which is good, but planting them is easy; their future management is essential and needs to be planned and funded. However, an ancient wood cannot be created, and once it’s gone it’s gone. They were here before we were and will remain long after we have gone. We must cherish them.

Anne Boileau
                                                                                                                                                                            February 2020

Oliver Rackham: The History of the English Countryside, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
John Hunter: The Essex Landscape, Essex Records Office, 1999
Simon Schama: Landscape and Memory, Harper Collins, 1995
The Bird of Time: N.W. Moore, C U P, 1987
Time Song: Julia Blackburn, Jonathan Cape, 2019